Differentiating Factors Between Formal/Informal Learning: Factor #3 – Application of Learning

by Dana Skiff on October 21, 2009

3. Application of Learning

The third differentiating factor between formal and informal learning is the application of what is learned. There are two aspects of application that need to be considered: the immediacy of application and the transfer of learning to the job.

In terms of immediacy, formal learning prepares learners for success in handling or dealing with future situations after the learner has completed a training course or program. As a result, the application of learning is deferred to some point in the future.

Unlike formal learning, however, informal learning looks to immediately resolve problems/situations the learner is currently dealing with. Informal learning is concerned with the immediate application of learning. The difference, then, between formal and informal learning is that formal learning is anticipatory in nature while informal learning has immediacy of application.

In terms of transfer of learning, formal learning presents the risks or concerns that informal learning does not, namely that learning may not be transferred to the job or may not be transferred appropriately. This concern is due to several causes. First, the need to learn may have disappeared or gone away if, for example, an employee has changed jobs or the job itself has changed. Second, the work climate of the employee may be such that transfer is inhibited, if not thwarted. For example, the employee’s manager and/or peers may not appreciate and support the new skills/knowledge or special programs, resources, etc. may not be available to apply the new skills.

Informal learning on the other hand is all about transfer. The whole purpose of learning informally is to immediately resolve a problem or correct a situation. That cannot be achieved without learning being applied.

When all is said and done, then, formal learning results in deferred application of learning with little or no guarantee that the learning will be transferred to the job. This is not true of informal learning.

Implication for Practice

The implication of application for practice appears straightforward. Formal learning cannot effectively meet immediate learning needs and should be approached as such. Where possible, formal learning materials should be broken down into quick references and made accessible for utilization in informal learning situations. Informal learning should be nurtured to the greatest extent possible.

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